MMA and Hollywood – The Evolution of “Realistic” Choreography
What happened to the fight scenes that our generation witnessed as children? We were led to believe that anything was possible. Arnold could punch a man in the throat one time and he would literally die. I mean, this is what kids around the world aspired to, right? As a child I can remember being in awe of figures like Bruce Lee, who is rumored to have been asked by film makers to slow down his movements so that the cameras of the time could properly capture his techniques. I remember having intense internal debates as to whether it was more incredibly cool or justifiably insane to want to be able to take the same beatings that Rocky endured so many times. And how could I forget Jackie Chan, who not only beat the hell out of at least ten million men over his illustrious career, but managed to do so while sending his audience into fits of laughter. Yes, hand-to-hand combat in film has been around almost as long as film itself, and a huge portion of that stems from classical martial arts such as Kung Fu, Boxing and Muay Thai. Today, however, choreography has attempted to become more realistic, and in doing so, it has found a new master: Mixed Martial Arts. As one of the fastest growing international sports, MMA’s meteoric rise has mirrored the evolution of combat techniques on stage and on film, leading to a much different looking kind of action hero. Welcome to the future of battle on the silver screen.
The change began years ago; more than two decades by my count. In 1993 the Ultimate Fighting Championship arrived, and it arrived with a bang. First, there was a family. Then there was a cage. Then, there was a revolution in international sports. As the brutality developed, no longer could Monty Python drop a frame or two to speed up the aesthetic value of a punch. No longer could ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper fight Keith David for twenty minutes. No longer could “Old Boy”s Oh Dae-Su slaughter a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-amount of people with his bare hands. The future had arrived, purging the ancient methods of cinematic battle and burning its tires in the dust of a metaphorically cremated corpse. The evolution of realistic hand-to-hand ferocity in cinema has begun, but is it really all that authentic? Let’s take a look, but first, a brief history.
Fighting is something that each and every one of us understands. There is something primal about it, certainly something animalistic, that resonates with each and every individual. That isn’t to say that everyone likes fighting, but it is something that is deeply embedded in the human psyche and culture. For this reason, fighting has been prevalent in cinema since the beginning of film. Generally speaking, combat was romanticized by the Samurai films coming out of Japan in the 1930s. These films were similar to the swashbuckler westerns that we in the United States are so used to, and even if you don’t recognize the names of these films, you certainly know the stories, as they have been recreated many times over (see ‘The Seven Samurai”). Eventually, fight choreography began to move away from fencing and weaponry and began utilizing the fisticuffs approach. The first international superstar to do this was none other than Bruce Lee. Aside from being a cultural phenomenon, motivational guru and center of one of the largest cult followings to ever come out of cinema, Bruce Lee was a highly accomplished martial artist. He gained success in the 1960s with ‘The Green Hornet’ and used his fame to develop and star in some of the most iconic martial arts movies of all time, including “Fist of Fury” and “Enter the Dragon”. These films became so wildly popular that they sparked a new generation of future stars who hoped to follow the same path laid out by the Jeet Kune Do master and creator.
Jackie Chan made a name for himself doing essentially the same kind of martial arts films that Bruce Lee used to do. What Chan did differently, however, was something that had not been seen before in Kung Fu films: comedy. Chan was doing ridiculous stunts and fight scenes while combining them with the kind of slapstick that would make The Marx Brothers green (or black and white) with envy. And Chan wasn’t the only one. One of the greatest techniques ever created for fight scenes was gifted to the world by the least likely of combatants: Monty Python. They were also fans of using comedy during fight scenes, as made clear by The Black Knight doing his damnedest to bite off the legs of his rival. Somehow or another, the Monty Python crew found that, when throwing a punch, they could cut a few frames in post-production and the point of contact would appear to be much faster, harder, and more dramatic. Interesting how these developments occur from the most unlikely of places…but I digress.
The next jump in the evolutionary chain came when film makers, especially those in Tinseltown, began making fight films sans martial arts. In the 1970s, people in the States were hooked on boxing, and similarly to MMA today, film makers (and by film makers, I mean Sly Stallone) began making movies about it. Rocky was, and still is, one of the most successful franchises ever to come out of cinema. The hard-nosed heavy underdog and montage machine won brutal boxing matches as well as our hearts over the years and years and years. And years. Prior to the Rocky films, nearly all filmed fist fights ended with one or two punches. Not Rocky though, oh no; he must have taken at least seven thousand shots from Apollo Creed alone. As fight scenes began to develop into longer, more drawn out battles, opposing styles began to pop up, allowing things to be more interesting and fresh. After a while though, film makers seemed to run out of fighting styles to pull from. Enter the new age choreographers such as Yuen Woo-Ping. Don’t recognize the name? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Woo-Ping has been one of the premier fight choreographers in the film industry for decades. He also happens to be the man responsible for developing Wire Fu, a style which combines the many aspects of martial arts with directorial techniques, such as suspending actors from wires and utilizing slow motion, or “bullet time”. He has choreographed little known films such as “Kill Bill”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Matrix” trilogy. Ring any bells? There’s a reason these films were so popular. The future of fighting had arrived, and it looked beautiful.
But wait a minute. ‘The Matrix’ is fifteen years old this year… It seems as though the future was a long time ago. Well luckily, in that time, a new face has been promoting REAL fighting all around the globe, and as it turns out, film makers are huge fans of this new sports phenomenon. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has only been around for 21 years, but it has effectively changed the face of modern stage fighting. In a time where it seemed as though the technique pool had all but run dry, a cage with eight walls and the moniker “Two Men Enter One Man Leaves” became an actual thing. No, no, this wasn’t “Bloodsport” or “Mortal Kombat”, (although, can we get someone working on that please?) but something that was based in reality. And if filmmakers have one thing that they’ve strived to master since the days of Lee Strasberg, it’s realism.
As the face of fighting changed, there was someone waiting in the wings to take the proverbial bull by its horns. What better way to promote this new form of fight choreography than to make an over-the-top tent pole film with every action hero ever to grace the modern silver screen? Oh, and throw in some MMA fighters, too. Sylvester Stallone and his project, ‘The Expendables’, was the perfect canvas on which to paint the new masterpiece that was Ultimate Fighting in film. Now this of course is not the only film to use the techniques seen in the cage to build a better fight scene, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, the third installment of the ‘Expendables’ franchise is coming out this month, starring the UFC’s most transcendent star, Ronda Rousey, and popular boxer, Victor Ortiz. The interesting thing about this whole new evolution in cinema combat is that nothing has become more or less realistic. The level of feasibility has remained constant. We are simply seeing more and more grappling. Arm-bars, Rear-Naked Chokes, leg-locks, shoulder locks and more have shown up in everything from “Elysium” to “Watchmen” to “Fast and Furious 6” to “Kick-Ass 2”. Now this isn’t to say that grappling in cinema is new. Bruce Lee used submissions, hell, even Mel Gibson used a triangle choke on Gary Busey in ‘Lethal Weapon’, but the point is that film makers are using these techniques (unsuccessfully) in order to make their fight scenes seem more realistic, piggy backing on the success that The Ultimate Fighting Championship has been having.
Now, whether or not fights scenes are realistic absolutely does not correlate to whether or not a fight scene is enjoyable. In many cases, the more unbelievable, the better. However, it is nice to see that the evolution of combat is constantly changing and generally progressing both inside the camera and inside the cage. In the modern age, fighting for sport and fighting in cinema seem to mirror and parallel one another, but as we all know, techniques in cinema are as constant a change as the weather in San Francisco, even if the screenplays mirror the weather in Los Angeles.
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Original link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/13702363524/in/photolist-mSQchY-nWWzLa-dSgtfS